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Insult & Injury

In response to:

Anthropology Upside Down from the April 4, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Edmund Leach’s review of Reinventing Anthropology (NYR, April 4) is difficult to take seriously. How can we when the reviewer does not even take the book seriously? Unfortunately, there are many people who take the words of book reviewers more seriously than the contents of the books themselves. Something should therefore be said.

Leach’s review begins with a far-fetched but revealing analogy. The alleged bad taste of the enthusiasts in the Hymes volume is said to be akin to the “radical enthusiasm which was briefly dominant in England between 1645 and 1660….” (p. 33). Are we to conclude from this that certain cultural anthropologists in the former colonies are reliving and exhibiting that childish intemperance the British intelligentsia had already outgrown long before the American colonies even became independent from the Crown?

Both the tone and substance of Leach’s review suggest an affirmative answer. Like all rebellious children, we are said to have overlooked the wisdom and experience of our Anglo-Saxon elders and to have become “provincial and exclusively American” (p. 33).

To add insult to injury, the editor himself (in a parenthetical aside) makes an unfortunate if insignificant slip of the pen. He fuses the names of Elliot Smith and W.H.R. Rivers into one. He thus insults not one, but two, founding fathers of British anthropology in one fell swoop. Such irreverence! From “religious zealots” (p. 33) no less!

The horrendous insults to the British tradition continue (though incredibly enough, we are the ones accused of “witch-hunting paranoia”! [p. 33]). Willis is singled out for transposing “the writings of the classical ethnographers into the anachronistic (?) setting of twentieth-century America” (p. 33). And whose writings specifically? Those of Bronislaw Malinowski—a native Pole allowed entry into the genteel British anthropological establishment. Willis, not being English, does not, of course, understand Malinowski. Does he not realize that “niggers” translated back into the original Polish means “blacks” in plain English? (p. 33). But what can you expect from a “Negro anthropologist” who “turn[s] the world upside down and extol[s] the virtues of black lower-class bias”? (p. 33)

This is Leach downside up sounding like Malinowski standing tall: “I made one or two coarse jokes, and the bloody niggers made a disapproving remark, whereupon I cursed them and was highly irritated…. I was terribly vexed by the fact that this nigger had dared to speak to me in such a manner” (Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, p. 272, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).

I do not want to give the biased impression that Leach’s patronizing Anglo-centrism is not “relieved” by other interpretative errors. Far from it. Take, for instance, his total misinterpretation of Diamond’s remarks. Contrary to the impression left by Leach, Diamond does not causally link “the idea of the inferior savage” with the “nineteenth century bourgeois colonialist epoch” (p. 33). Diamond points to a far deeper and more important assumption; “namely, that in the nineteenth century, the period of bourgeois political and class consolidation within the Euro-American sphere, the very image of man was progressively [my italics] degraded, and that was reflected in the shift in conceptions of the primitive” (Stanley Diamond in Reinventing Anthropology, p. 409, New York: Pantheon, 1972).

Leach does not, however, stray very far from the tone and the theme announced by the opening analogy. After chiding us for trying to “appease student militants” by means of a “Marxist rhetoric” (p. 33), he next admonishes us for our slow recognition and belated rediscovery of what Malinowski, et. al. knew all along: “There is a radical incompatibility between the demands of scientific objectivity and the personal human involvement which participant observation necessarily entails” (p. 33).

Never mind that virtually all the contributors to the volume in one way or another seek to transcend or mediate this false dichotomy. At this point, Leach is totally disinterested in the actual contents of the book. He is far more concerned with the unique ethnographic opportunities of his British colleagues. The latter, not Boas, et. al., were able to do participatory observation and thus to confront and to resolve the “paradox” (p. 33).

As always, the British anthropologists are said to have been way ahead of us. Why? Because their “objects of study” had a greater “autonomy of action” (whatever that means) than their American indigenous counterparts. The British “objects of study” were thus able to obtain doctoral degrees in cultural anthropology from the London School of Economics and to “become the leaders of post-colonial independent governments.” Their revered Anglo-Saxon professors, in the meantime, “had begun to explore the sociology of colonialism” (p. 34).

This idealic picture of British anthropologists teaching their African “subjects” (erstwhile “objects”) about the evils of colonialism and thereby training them for independence is as fictitious as it is ludicrous. The counter-evidence is simply overwhelming. To cite but a few of many possible references: Talal Asad (ed.), Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (London: Ithaca, 1973); Jairus Banaji, “The Crisis of British Anthropology,” New Left Review, 1970, 64: 71-85; Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow (eds.), The Africa That Never Was (New York: Twayne, 1970); Gerhard Leclerc, Anthropologie et Colonialisme (Paris: Fayard, 1972); or, finally, Jack Stauder, “The ‘Relevance’ of Anthropology Under Imperialism,” Critical Anthropology, 1972, 2(2): 65-87.

What is so ludicrous about Leach’s argument is that many British anthropologists have willfully suppressed and/or repressed their often active role in sustaining, even formulating, British colonial policy. These past involvements are simply denied. Gluckman’s comment during a lecture on imperialism and anthropology I delivered at Manchester last year is perhaps prototypical. I paraphrase: “The moral problems you people have over there [that is, in American anthropology] never arose when I had the privilege of serving in His Majesty’s government.” I heard Meyer Fortes say virtually the same thing some time ago (at a 1968 Wenner-Gren Conference in New York) and more recently Raymond Firth concurs that there might have been (and continue to be) blind spots in British social anthropology (Raymond Firth, The Skeptical Anthropologist? Social Anthropology and Marxist Views on Society, London: Oxford, 1972).

In sum, Messrs. Leach & Company, not the contributors to the Hymes volume, are guilty of distorting historical realities. Little wonder that a “mature scholar” (p. 34) with skeletons in his closet cannot sympathize with Jay’s alleged “self-flagellation” (p. 34). Leach’s kind of scholarly maturity—and the “judicious” historical compromises that justify and perpetuate it—does not allow for “altruism and enthusiasm” (p. 34)—let alone for a radical reassessment of his own or anyone else’s past. The paternalistic empathy Leach does manage to express “with the frustrated exasperations of Hymes’s contributors” (p. 34) sounds like a hollow echo of the noblesse oblige of another generation.

Leach does gleefully and maliciously point out that all of us are “middle-aged professors of anthropology in American universities” (p. 34). Some of us, of course, may wish to take exception to being prematurely called middle-aged. More importantly however, in our case at least the post middle-aged hardening of the paradigmatic arteries has not as yet set in. Leach, irrespective of his chronological age, seems far ahead of us in that respect. Even his preference for the study of cross-cousin marriage systems is revealing. More often than not, such analyses result in static and arrested caricatures of ethnological reality.

Two final remarks. One, I regret having been singled out for extensive citation at the end of Leach’s review. Not that his criticisms are very astute. Making clever remarks about a style you do not like conveniently excuses you from seriously considering matters of substance. In a way, I suppose, I should be honored. After all, in the recent past Leach has usually singled out Lévi-Strauss for this sort of clever and vacuous treatment. But I am not. For in using my words as fillers, Leach has left no space to mention all the other contributors to the Hymes volume. Perhaps he just ran out of steam. But I do not believe so. Rather, I think there is a more important reason. The contributors he omits do not readily fit into the imaginary picture of the book he has painted for us.

The unmentioned contributors, incidentally, constitute over half the volume! A lamentable oversight by a reviewer who never ceases to appeal to such scientific virtues as historical accuracy, empirical verification, and mature scholarship. In the context of the Marxian tradition that Dr. Leach finds so rhetorical and vitriolic, we would call this sort of interpretative acrobatics a symptom of intellectual “false consciousness.”…

Bob Scholte

New School for Social Research

New York City

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